Archive for October, 2007

Candid apples

Finally, it’s occurred to me, the reason hardly anybody cooks anymore. It’s because of the carpet cleaners.

You make an appointment, structure your entire day around it – and then they’re late. Not only are they late, but a piece of their equipment malfunctions, so that the cleaners must head across town to fetch a replacement part, only to return just at that narrow window in your afternoon when you thought you’d have time to make the apple crisp. The apple crisp that you’re only making to use up the apples you didn’t even really want in the first place; the crisp that is supposed to be snug in the oven while you put together that little something called dinner.

The cleaners are loud, they get in your way, and they ask you questions about a hot water source and the provenance of the giant blue Rorschach-looking spot on the bedroom floor. The four-year-old is understandably nervous about the vacuum that’s taller than she is, and suddenly your moral opposition to dialing for delivery evaporates, and you’re tempted to ditch dessert altogether.

Yesterday I was smack in the middle of this situation, but seeing as I had five peeled apples sitting on my counter, and realizing I’d already let Brian in on the possibility of a baked apple something-or-other, I couldn’t let inconvenience kick me out of my kitchen.

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But first, I ought to back up. We received roughly a dozen medium-sized Granny Smith apples in our co-op produce basket this past Saturday. Now, ten apples would usually be reason to rejoice, but given that Granny Smith is quite possibly my least favorite variety of apple, it was really kind of a downer. Pink Lady, you have my deepest affections. The same goes for you, Pacific Rose. And you Honeycrisp, you, that I just tasted for the very first time in Vermont, how well your name doth fit.

Every time I caught those Grannies peering up at me from the fruit bowl, co-existing with the under-ripe oranges and the just-green bananas, it seemed they were throwing down a challenge: Peel me! Core me! Bake me!

When my husband – who cannot appreciate the texture of raw apples, but who gamely chomps through one or two every autumn, usually right under an apple tree – tried a Granny Smith yesterday and declared it too firm, too dry, too tart, I knew my only choice was to bake those suckers into something edible.

Four p.m. arrived, and the cleaners returned, ready to suction microfiber just feet away from where I stood chopping apples and juicing a lemon. I was trying to smoosh my sugar, oat and butter mess into the large, moist clumps that would redeem those apples and I felt like I was inside a very large vacuum.

My girls were in even closer proximity, right next to me, dancing and laughing and engaging in all sorts of silliness. Vocal unrestraint was emanating from their little bodies, I could tell by looking, but I was spared the noise. I saw their mouths moving, theatrical opening and closing, but heard not a sound. The only sound was the blaring, overbearing drone of the upholstery cleaner.

And there we have it, the part where the inconvenient verged on marvelous: It was almost like I was alone in my kitchen, with grainy, sugary, slick fingertips, a heavy dusting of flour on my sweater, and my thoughts allowed full circle in my head, uninterrupted as they were by the carrying on of little girls.

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I might always have to make cleaning appointments this late in the day.

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Sunday slowdown

It’s Sunday, which around here is a more laid-back kind of cooking day. I know many a cook pull out all the stops in the production of Sunday dinner (I imagine there are homes across the country that still emit the savory scents of roasting beef and carrots) but I kind of like doing the opposite.

Weeknights I cook like crazy as a way to unwind from the day, to put a barefooted stop to the spinning, to the back-and-forth and in-and-out. But on Sundays, which we set aside exclusively for familial pursuits of the decidedly slow variety, I’m already unwound. And as I typically grocery shop early in the week, Sundays I’m left to scratch my head, to devise something edible from whatever I can scrape from the bottom of the produce bin.

In the rather recent past I hit the Sunday jackpot with a lone zucchini, a few medium-sized carrots, a host of cheeses and some farm-fresh eggs from my husband’s office (yes, his office, and yes, we live in one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, but more on that aside another time). All those ingredients seemed to exist for the express purpose of being gathered into a crustless quiche, a dish that is easy by virtue of its throw-together-blindfolded qualities, but that makes me feel nonetheless like a bona fide cook.

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But on the off occasion my kitchen is bereft of vegetables, it always has eggs. And there is always bread and always milk, and with the happy combination of the three, I can give in to my unwavering craving for French toast.

I learned the basics of French toast from my dad: stir together with a fork the eggs and the milk, dip and soak the slices of bread, then grill them. And that’s how I used to make it, just kind of nonchalantly stirring the egg-milk mixture together until it looked right, in a pie pan, the way my dad did it.

Then one day I came across an actual recipe for French toast in an issue of Martha Stewart Living. It had proportions! That there would be ratios involved, measurements, exactitude, never occurred to me. Two eggs per every ½ cup of milk, Martha’s recipe said. Not only that, but her French toast involved vanilla – nothing short of inspiration, I concluded, ripping out the page. Later I found a recipe that used cinnamon and in a restaurant I fell in love with a French toast that used orange juice.

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This became my signature French toast, a mixture of eggs and milk, vanilla, cinnamon and orange juice. Then just last night, short on OJ, I altered my standby, and the result may constitute an improvement. I had picked up a jar of three-citrus marmalade when traveling recently, and, inspired by a recipe for orange marmalade-frittata Panini that we adore in this household, I dumped a tablespoon or so of marmalade into the egg-milk mixture instead of the usual 1/3 cup of juice. The result was noticeably sweeter and more, well, orangey, but not cloyingly so thanks to the slight heat of the cinnamon and the richness of the vanilla.

I know, I know: I Googled “marmalade French toast” after dinner I am not the first person to add marmalade to French toast (I knew in my heart of hearts that it couldn’t be my discovery). All I take credit for is the thought that occurred to me in my kitchen, eggs beaten on the counter, as I peered in the fridge: “Hey, marmalade might taste really good.” Herewith are my proportions (not a complete recipe), altered from that original Martha recipe I stumbled on so many years ago.

Marmalade French Toast

12 slices (1/2-inch thick) of hearty, whole grain bread

4 eggs

1 cup of milk

1 tbsp. orange or other citrus marmalade (you might try double or triple this – this was my not-boldly-going, first-try measurement)

1 tsp. vanilla

1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon

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Ready, set…kitchenette

It is with no small ounce of pride that I announce that during our entire 12-day New England-Canada fall trek, we ate only once in the type of establishment that served my kids their drinks in plastic cups with lids and straws. (It was vacation, friends. We saved up for this!) And even that was when we were going for the local Boston pizza experience, so I’d thank you not to regard that as failure.

Otherwise, my nine- and four-year-olds drank mostly out of glass goblets, placed in front of them by unblinking wait staff. My preschooler didn’t miss a beat in toppling her milk glass on the white tablecloth during our first breakfast outing, but thankfully other meals passed without similar incidents.

Still, I’m sure you can imagine that meal after meal of vigilantly guarding the glass glass can distract a parent from actually tasting his or her entrée.

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And so it was that, when halfway through our trip we checked into a Montréal hotel suite equipped with a full — if tiny and ill-equipped — kitchen, I couldn’t help but have visions of rolling up my sweater sleeves and whipping up a little something.

The first night we roamed the streets in search of a suitable dinner. I posed the sheepish suggestion that we grab something from the market and actually use our kitchenette. It was late, blood sugar levels had long ago plummeted, and the something we grabbed – after considering prêt-a-manger offerings like lasagna and the salad bar – were a couple boxes of soup.

Some square, whole-wheat pizza cracker crusts (ultra-thin, crispy and indigenous to these parts), feta and a block of brick, a small jar of tomato sauce and a bundle of fresh mint later, we had a respectable dinner.

But what really got me going was our visit the following day to the Marché Atwater and its stand after stand of produce fresh from Québec farms and its fish market ready with steaks and filets and things still alive and in their shells.

Now, many of you inhabit cities with impressive markets featuring a bounty of the seasonal and perishable. We live in a city (Phoenix) that has a couple of outdoor locations with booths and tents and the like, and vendors within selling their wares, and we call them farmers’ markets. But, frankly, they don’t quite qualify. Sure, there are a couple of regular farmers peddling their organic harvest, but they are outnumbered by people selling things like soap and candles and lawn ornaments. Not that soap and candles and lawn ornaments are unworthy things, but when I hit a farmers’ market, I want the bounty.

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So here we were in Montréal with all the makings of a glorious home-cooked meal, albeit away from home, right under our noses, and I had a kitchen ready at my disposal. I was ready to go for it, to make do with the less than sharp knives, with pots and pans the wrong shapes and sizes. Emmy practically beat me to the idea, enthusiastically suggesting that, “Mom, you could cook dinner for us! In our hotel!” (How nice to be the object of such faith.)

And so cook I did, after procuring some fresh trout and prawns, a proper lemon, as well as some couscous and fresh peas to toss with the leftover feta and mint. I even used the prior-mentioned pizza crust to fashion an appetizer with some Port Salut from a days-ago picnic.

As much as we adore traveling, and dining out, and the combination of the two, there is nevertheless comfort in offering a simply prepared meal, using ingredients of everyone’s choosing, to my little family.

Even if the hotel cupboards only contained glass glasses.

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Of toast tongs and truffles

I am so full.

It started with the poached eggs and smoked salmon – two of my very favorite things, and together, no less – during our first Boston breakfast, then continued with popovers and truffles (chèvre and cognac; rosemary, citrus and caramel) and supremely fresh red snapper in Portsmouth. There was maple syrup over whole-grain pancakes in a tiny town called Jackson, followed the day after by maple ice cream, more smoked salmon (this time hot-smoked) and pot de crème in Québec.

Every day, after every meal, it’s the same refrain: I’m so full. I am stuffed, bricked, almost staggeringly satisfied, always crumbs and morsels and a bite or so beyond content. I really am attempting my typical strict efforts at portion control. I keep thinking I’m surrendering my fork when I’m full, but there’s a part of me that’s playing at being the survivalist, on the road as we are, not knowing for sure whether the next meal will be truly good or just bordering on decent. What’s getting me is the constant service of restaurant-plate proportions, coupled with this ineluctable vacation mentality, the one that convinces me I need a three p.m. treat on a daily basis. There are just so many worthy treats to be had.

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I’m out of town, in parts both known and unfamiliar, where old favorite cravings have equal pull with fresh temptations. We came to see fall foliage and old friends where we used to live, but in our book, travel is made for copious tasting. Yes, taste-testing is every bit as essential as sight-seeing. It doesn’t help that for every town and city we hit, I have a long list of restaurants to try, of menu items I’ve scouted out online and from books. Modern Pastry’s tiramisu. L’Ardoise’s mussels. Olive+Gourmando’s goat cheese and house-ketchup panino (a kick of apple cider vinegar, I think). All of these are must-tastes, equal to must-do’s like trekking The Flume in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and teaching our girls to blow dandelion fluff on the Plaines d’Abraham in Québec and apple picking in Vermont’s Champlain Valley (oh, yeah, that one also happens to involve eating).

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And then there’s my constant menu scrutinizing for novel ingredient pairings, for new cooking techniques I’ve got to give a whirl. Amateur cook though I am, I’ve collected more than my share of cook’s tools along our way.

So while I’m “conducting research” in restaurants, I’m also looking forward to testing the toast tongs (of Vermont maple – who could resist?) with my very own toaster. As much as I love having real chefs prepare my meals, I’ll still enjoy going home to fill my souvenir salière and poivrière from Montréal. Then I’ll grind them over salmon filets before slathering the fish with the maple-champagne mustard I picked up somewhere during my travels, and call it good to be home.

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For the love of mint

I am here to proclaim my love of mint. No, not the kind you grab from the host’s station on the way out of dinner, not even the flavoring found coupled with chocolate in ice cream (although when well done that’s a mighty testament to its power), but mint as herb, sprigs of it, rolled, then chopped and filling my kitchen with a fragrance imparting a sort of calm energy.

First there was the fresh pea and mint salad with shallots and olive oil concocted in my kitchen on an otherwise miserable summer day. Then there was the pea and mint soup on top of a mountain mid-snowstorm, after several break-in ski runs, that warmed and emboldened me and made me almost giddy. There was an early autumn couscous, sprinkled with mint, made for me by a friend in her home in Montreal. And tonight, it made my husband love fresh green beans.

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There were a lot of beans sprawled long and slim, but not too waifish, in our produce basket Saturday. I regarded them with a half-raised eyebrow, because although I appreciate them for what they are (a vegetable classic, versatile and nourishing) my husband will only eat (loud gasp!) canned. I’m sure it harks back to somewhere in his log of childhood dinner memories, but any time I’ve tried to impose the legume on him—nonchalantly, as though I’ve forgotten his dislike—he’s chewed through them only to be an example to the children. Here I was with another opportunity, a chance to cook these beans, to snap their ends with relish and boil them into something wonderful that would change his mind.

Tonight’s beans turned out to be worthy beans, infused as they were with mint chopped by Emmie (her first time with the chef’s knife!), a light dousing of extra virgin and some great-smelling red wine vinegar (I’m really liking Kitchen Line’s at the moment). Scattered amongst the tangle were a few red cherry tomatoes and a mess of thinly sliced shallots—easy picking around for the half of my family that doesn’t do tomatoes or shallots. Brian’s report was that he liked them, really, really liked them, by virtue of the mint and a mysteriously absent squeak. “That’s why I usually don’t like green beans that are fresh or frozen – they always squeak.”

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Goes to show, doesn’t it? The squeaky bean doesn’t always get the praise.

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